by Taylor Tracy, Staff Writer
Even out of the darkest and most hopeless periods of human history come stories of inconceivable hope, courage and survival. More amazing is when these survivors take their experiences and commit their lives to inspiring others and creating as a response to human destruction.
Eighty-seven year old Holocaust survivor and artist Tibor Spitz spoke to a packed audience earlier this week about this experience surviving the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia (in the region that is now modern day Slovakia), using his artwork as a guide to talk about its different phases and emotions.
Spitz emphasized how so much hate from the Nazi party was directed towards such a small part of the total population at the time, and a population that lived in relative peace in Slovakia between World War I and World War II.
In his vibrantly colored and expressively painted artworks, Spitz captures the spectrum of emotions that Jewish people experienced during and in the face of the Holocaust, from grief and pain to hope. Some of his works are caricatures of different Jewish figures in the community. Other paintings are responses to emotions Spitz felt during the time his family was in hiding from the Nazis. Some are religious in tone, others more secular.
All of them capture Spitz’s artistic spirit in a way that is visually stunning. Spitz largely let his artworks speak for themselves. Gesturing to a colorful and bold painting of a person facing a bird, Spitz said, “This was my artistic depiction of uncertainty.” He said the same thing of the next painting, showing a man playing a fiddle on a horse. The colors that Spitz use seem to borrow from folk art in Eastern Europe, using an abundance of bold and faded colors like deep reds, faded blues and vibrant yellows.
At the talk, Spitz gave a chronology of how he experienced the Holocaust as a child and teenager. He was fifteen years old when World War II ended. At the start of his presentation, Spitz recognized that Holocaust survivors are disappearing and with them, so is the importance of listening to their stories.
About the status of Jewish people in Czechoslovakia before the war, Spitz said, “Between 1918 and 1938, Czechoslovak minority religions were accepted and tolerated.” He added, “The village that I was born in had around 2,600 inhabitants and about 270 Jews.”
Spitz discussed how his family knew the situation was beginning to change, particularly in the wake of Kristallnacht. Spitz said, “I was ten years old when I was expelled from public school.” Spitz was no longer able to attend classes because he was Jewish. He added, “I was twelve years old when I was supposed to be deported.”
He also talked about the tremendous loss and uncertainty he and the other Jewish members of the community faced. He showed a series of pictures of his classmates and extended family, most of whom who did not survive.
Most of the Jewish residents in his village were deported in cattle cars and sent to death camps in occupied Poland after being told they were being sent to new facilities to work. Spitz’s family faced a similar fate, but his parents were skeptical of the labor camps the Nazis were allegedly sending Jewish people to. Recalling the choice that his family faced, Spitz said, “We can take poison now and die in peace or we fight back against all odds. We must decide to fight.”
Spitz, his siblings and his parents hid out in an underground shelter they built into the side of a hill, designed by his brother. He showed a series of paintings depicting his family in the shelter and explained how they needed to stay absolutely quiet and at one point, were robbed of their food and blankets by parachuters who arrived to fight against the Nazis.
After the Holocaust, Spitz went on to work in the glass industry before retiring nearly twenty years ago to become a full-time artist and lecturer. Even in the face of all he’s lost, Spitz remains humorous and uplifting. When asked by a member of the audience what he says as a motivational speaker to those who have faced tragedy, Spitz said, “Don’t cry over spilled milk. Find a cat.”
Spitz’s talk, “Art and the Holocaust” was the last installment in a three-part series called “Remembering the Holocaust: Films, Memorials and Art” organized by the Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study. There is one more event from the Center this semester, a Commemoration of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) on Mon. April 24, 5-6:30 p.m. in Mead Hall Founders Room where David Tuck will share his first-hand experience of surviving the Holocaust.